Music by Giuseppe
Libretto by Francesco Piave after Victor Hugo's Hernani
First performed: 1844
A group of bandits are drinking and fighting among themselves. Ernani, their leader, tells them that he has fallen in love with Elvira, who will be forced soon to marry her aged uncle and guardian, Don Ruy Gomez de Silva. The bandits agree to help him rescue her.
On the night before her wedding Elvira dreads Silva's return and longs for Ernani's intervention. She rejects the jewels that her future bridegroom has sent her.
Don Carlo, the new King of Spain, is also in love with Elvira. Once more she refuses him. Ernani arrives and challenges the king to fight with him.
Silva is appalled to find two men with his niece. Refusing to listen to explanations, he calls for weapons. Jago announces the arrival of Don Riccardo, the king's squire. To the surprise of Silva's court, he reveals the presence of the king, Don Carlo. Silva asks for forgiveness. Carlo claims he has come to seek Silva's advice and support in his bid to become the Holy Roman Emperor, and augments the "honour" by deciding to stay the night in Silva's castle. He arranges a safe passage for Ernani, though the bandit is not placated. He swears to pursue Don Carlo; Elvira vows to be constant to her love; while Silva reassures the king that he deserves the imperial crown and Carlo promises to use the power for worthwhile ends.
Silva's court celebrates the day of his wedding to Elvira. Ernani, disguised as a pilgrim, asks for hospitality. Appalled to see Elvira apparently reconciled to marrying Silva, Ernani throws off his disguise and offers his head as a wedding gift. His band of followers has been routed and Silva can surrender him to the king and claim the reward. But Silva assures his "guest" of protection and prepares to defend the castle against the king.
Ernani's recriminations are answered when Elvira reveals that she had intended to kill herself at the altar. Their embraces are interrupted by Silva, who swears to exact revenge for such treachery. Jago announces the arrival of Carlo. Silva refuses the easy revenge of handing Ernani over to the king: Ernani must die by his own hand. Silva has Ernani hidden. He braves the king's threats to raze the castle to the ground and refuses to betray his guest. Silva is deprived of his sword and the castle is ransacked. No trace of Ernani can be found, so Elvira is taken hostage despite Silva's pleas.
Silva releases Ernani and challenges him to a duel. But Ernani reveals that Carlo is their rival for Elvira's love: instead of fighting, they should join forces in pursuing the king. Silva only agrees to delay killing Ernani when the bandit swears on his father's honour that whenever Silva wants him dead, all he has to do is blow the horn which Ernani gives him. They join with Silva's men in swearing revenge on the king
Carlo has been forewarned of an attempt on his life. The League of Electors is meeting nearby and the king arranges that if he is chosen to be Holy Roman Emperor, a cannon will be fired three times. Meanwhile he reflects on the transient claims of beauty, wealth and power, and resolves to achieve immortality through virtue.
The conspirators arrive, among them Silva and Ernani. Ernani is chosen by ballot as the assassin, to Silva's dismay. He offers to free Ernani from his oath if he will yield the privilege, but Ernani is adamant. The conspirators swear to free Spain from imperial domination.
Cannon shots announce the election of Carlo. The electors arrive with the imperial insignia. Carlo confronts the conspirators, condemning the mob to imprisonment and the nobility to death. Ernani claims his right to die and reveals his true identity as Don Giovanni of Aragon. Elvira argues for forgiveness. Carlo is inspired by the example of Charlemagne to pardon all his enemies and unites Elvira with Ernani. All join in praising Carlo's mercy except for Silva, who still requires vengeance.
Guests celebrate the wedding of Elvira and Ernani. A masker appears – it is Silva, come to exact his revenge.
Ernani and Elvira declare their happiness – until a horn is heard in the distance. Ernani cannot conceal his distress, but pretends to Elvira that an old wound is bothering him and asks her to go for help. He begs Silva for a respite, but Silva only offers him a choice between poison and a dagger. Ernani takes the dagger as Elvira returns. She rounds on Silva, but he is made even more obstinate by her pleas that she loves Ernani. Ernani accepts his destiny and stabs himself. Before dying he commands Elvira to live.
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